Smudge and Pudge went down to the lake. Smudge fell in and who was left???
Smudge and Pudge were two carefree dogs who lived in rural Ogilvie. They happened upon the Smedstad farm in 1975. Most Minnesotans remember this winter as one of the vilest in all of Minnesota winters! Four separate storms had wind velocity over 70 mph and one of those storms hit 100 mph with 20 foot snow drifts. Over 60 people died in just two of these storms that produced over five feet of snow in some areas. There was also a song recorded that depicted just how dangerous these storms were in the rock classic, “The Shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” An epic tale of just one disaster that took place in a state that some from the south believe never sees a warm day and has snow cover year round!
It was the winter when Smudge and Pudge first surfaced. They were a mixed bag of a lot of varieties. They were like most farm dogs I guess but were stray dogs in this case. Strays were commonplace unless they chased deer… which was always a fatal mistake when caught. Smudge was mostly white with a little black on him that looked like someone had smudged a little grease on him and it never came off which gave him his name. Pudge was not portly like his name would suggest and was brown and white with very short hair. Both dogs were skin and bones which was NOT common among farm dogs.
When you are seven like I was when I named Smudge, Pudge just seemed to fit because it rhymed nicely for a seven year old. Kind of like a super hero duo for dogs. Batman and Robin rid Gotham of hooligans in comic book lore, while Smudge and Pudge were the hero’s of the farm, where daring rescues and feats of undogly Guinness book worthiness were performed. Able to leap 5 foot snow banks in a single bound while eluding capture from being petted were commonplace. Everyday after school it was a task in itself just to get close to this dynamic duo.
My older brother Todd was 9 and my younger sister Tracy was just 5. We all helped in devising plans on just how to capture these wild creatures for just a minute so we could pet them. Imagine being forced to watch freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for days. Within your reach for the taking… but never being able to taste their chocolaty goodness! This was our quest. All we wanted to do was pet them! Why are they always running away we thought?
There were snow traps with elaborate tunnels for them to drop into. Snow forts erected with ice cream pail back hoes and twine lassos at the ready to snare one of these creatures like a wild mustang by a seasoned cowboy. If MacGyver were aired in 1975, he would have been impressed with our creative ways using only simple objects to capture such wily beasts of burden!
While looking for items in our once proud chicken coup - turned junk storage, it happened! There they were right in front of me. Unable to move or yell for Todd or Tracy in fears they might bolt through me for the door, I stood motionless as did they. It was definitely a classic old cowboy stare down. Who was going to make the first move and would it cost them their life I wondered? I set my arms to my side slowly as if I was getting ready to draw fire like Wild Bill Hickok on his soon to be next victim! I soon found myself in a stare down with none other than Smudge. In the dog world he was known as “Dog Who Never Blinks” I am guessing because his lids didn’t even shimmy in the least let alone blink. My eyelids were getting heavy as he toyed with me. My fingers started to fidget. My knees were starting to lock, unlock, and then lock again.
Dang it! I lasted about 30 seconds and the drop of my eyelids caused a sudden panic in Smudge, which in turn startled Pudge and the bolt was on! In one fluid motion I whipped off my glove and dove for Smudge as he ran past me in a blur. Reaching out as far as I could my hand ran against his back and down his side before he and Pudge made their way out the door. My legs kicked up in the air as I fell down and Pudge made his way over my outstretched legs like a kangaroo with some serious hops!
In my mind the impossible had just been attained. I was the first to pet one of these strays. Technically I know it wasn’t an actual pet of the dog but I was seven for crying out loud and this counts gosh dang it!
Ready to tell Todd and Tracy about my accomplishment I noticed something I hadn’t stumbled upon until now. In the corner of the chicken coup were two big cardboard barrels with the letters BORAX written in big bold letters across each barrel. At the bottom of these barrels was a large amount of their contents spilled out onto the dirt floor. It was some sort of granulated substance that after I smelled it was obvious to what it was… soap! My dad was a mechanic, and this was obviously something that someone of his stature needed in large quantities.
Much like Encyclopedia Brown, the child mystery solving prodigy I was reading at the time, I came upon a very important clue! By the chew marks on the bottom of the barrels I concluded they were eating the soap and Ewwwwwwww – How disgusting I thought! Smudge and Pudge also had VERY thin bodies where you could see their ribs pretty clearly. My thoughts of conquer and petting were now replaced by sorrow and disgust. They were starving to death and the reason they happened upon our farm was to stay alive by eating soap.
… and like so many Encyclopedia Brown stories I brought this new found attention to my parents at the dinner table. I was so excited to let everyone know what I had deduced and what we could do to help. Table scraps, to small amounts of dog food that we used to feed Minnie and Mandy would surely help out our homeless dogs in need. Minnie and Mandy were our farm dogs of mixed German Shepard and Collie mix. They had enough food so I thought a little of their ration along with what we didn’t finish at the dinner table would be enough to fatten these guys up in a hurry. Anything had to be better than eating soap!?!? Soap is only supposed to go into your mouth when you say something bad and I don’t think “Bark, Bark, Bark” qualifies as some type of doggy swear word that should be followed by a washing out of such a foul mouthed barrage.
Ideas were flowing out of my mouth as new ones came to me at a dizzying rate. It didn’t take long for my dad to interrupt with, “I will take care of it,” as he finished gnawing the last of the steak that was clinging for life between his fingers. I saw myself nodding in approval as I knew he would find a way to help out Smudge and Pudge. I looked over to Tracy and she was nodding in approval as well as Todd to the left of me. We looked like three bobble heads with never ending smiles as we envisioned a fattened up Smudge and literally a Pudge! I took a second look at my dad as he cleaned his teeth of what remained of tonight’s roast beef between his fangs with a toothpick. A wink and a reassuring smirk and I started to get an uneasy feeling. A large beard and red flannel shirt was the backdrop to the smacking sound I heard as he tried to get every last morsel out from between his teeth. I focused on the sound as it grew louder and my eyes were fixated to the end of the toothpick. I looked at mom who immediately looked to the floor. The bobble head motion had stopped and the room got suddenly quiet except for the smacking sound one makes trying to get that hard to reach piece of meat that has lodged itself where only floss can eradicate.
No one questioned dad. He rarely spoke. When he did speak we would decipher what he meant but only when he wasn’t around or in our heads so he couldn’t hear. Not that my dad would beat us or anything, as I am pretty sure he never laid a hand on any of us. The thought scared the BeJesus out of us nonetheless. Maybe it was just respect, but he seemed to command some authority without the backing of actual physical punishment. It was this questioning of his statement that had us wonder what he meant all night. I didn’t see him bring table scraps or a ration of Minnie and Mandy’s dog food outside to the chicken coup like I suggested.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“What does that mean?” I thought.
I couldn’t sleep all night and neither could Tracy as she wanted know what Smudges fur felt like. I told her it was soft, short, and cold!
“Did he like it?” she asked
“Don’t know” I said. “I don’t speak dog so I have no idea what bark, bark, bark meant.”
“Maybe it means - Hi my name is Smudge.”
“Maybe it means you need to go to bed.”
Tracy went back to her bedroom and I lay there all night wondering what was going to happen. Maybe dad was going to build them a really nice dog house. I was thinking something with maybe a penthouse on top and the downstairs where the kitchen would be to hold their food and water. I really couldn’t wait to get up and get home from school to see what dad was going to do to help these doggies in need!
After my daily chores in the morning of feeding the cows and chickens in the barn I hurried to get some dog food and water out to the chicken coup for Smudge and Pudge. I woke up early so I would have enough time to accomplish this and carry five gallon buckets of water to the barn. Normally water could be produced from a faucet in the barn but as with most Minnesota winters, each day can change drastically from the previous. A sub zero change in temps had frozen the well that supplied the water to the barn the day before. Going to school with frozen pant legs from the spill over in the buckets was a common occurrence during the winter months. This winter with all the snow pack insulation it was less than we normally experienced but the plowed area of the yard must have given way to the elements and froze that section of pipe.
One last look to check that the cowlicks weren’t noticeable on my noggin in the mirror and off I ran to catch the bus a quarter mile away. Not that a cow actually licked my hair but this is where the term derives its meaning in case you wondered. The banks of snow were over our heads from the plows and we couldn’t see if the bus was coming so we HAD to run just in case so we wouldn’t miss it. Everything was slow this day from the bus that took forever to get there, to the hands on the clock moving progressively slower in each class, to the ride home. It felt like I was able to finally take my first breath when I took that first step off the bus to run that quarter mile back home. A smile came across my face as I walked down the road in confidence that Smudge and Pudge had been taken care of today. One last turn to the driveway and up to the farm I started to walk. A fresh set of tracks had crossed the snow bank on the west side of the driveway and ended near some red covered snow in the middle of the driveway. A white pick up with two men in orange hunting garb and thick beards like my dad passed us as they dragged some of the red snow with their tires down the driveway. Without expression I walked up to the farm and into the house. There was no need to use Encyclopedia Brown on this one.
Tracy asked, “What do you think Smudge and Pudge are up to?”
I replied with, “They moved to another farm I heard at school. We won’t see them anymore.”
“I hope it’s a nice farm like ours.” She said smiling as she went off to play.
With all the snow we had that winter and the destruction it brought across the state it was ironic that it decided not to snow for the remainder of winter. It was five more weeks of crossing red snow to get to the school bus and back home every week. It was my reminder that something in deed was “taken care of.” I don’t remember talking to my dad until the snow had finally melted and the spring washed away my guilt.
...written October 15, 2008
I graduated in 1984 from Ogilvie High School. A small school located almost directly in the middle of Minnesota. The teachers were incredible and a few are still around with the same passion that was there when I attended so long ago. Over the years budget constraints have taken their toll on elective classes and other resources that help children succeed at the highest level. These constraints have been battering the school like a hurricane on a levy helped to protect a city from destruction. This fall a different levy is in need of desperate attention or a different kind of storm will befall a city and eliminate a school in the process. On November 4th, 2008, that levy failed and the school will be left to consolidate with other schools and new school boundaries will be drawn and come 2009 a new school year comes one less town and one less school that mattered. Driving to my daughters where she goes to school in Olivia, which has already combined three schools into one years ago, I pass another town and another school in MacLeod County West that will also close its doors next year and consolidate. It happens all over the state and the country every election year.
Small schools and their communities lack the resources that larger schools have to compete and sustain in an ever changing climate. There was a time when going to a small school had almost every benefit of a larger school when it came to education. Times have changed and we continually ask these communities that don’t have the resources to fund our schools when the state and federal levels keep taking these funds away. We ask farmers, small business owners, and other families that make up these small towns across Minnesota to stretch their property taxes that they can barely afford in order to help preserve their children’s education and ultimately…even their child’s school.
It shouldn’t be this way, it wasn’t always this way, and we can’t allow another school to pass under the waters of a failed levy. It’s time to take a stand and say enough is enough. When our nation is falling farther and farther behind the rest of the world and the rest of the world is taking our children’s jobs it’s time to take a stand. We can’t afford to let another school succumb to the politics of education to the wayside.
It takes years for this to happen and I will give a quick and simple explanation to how this happens. In Governments it takes thousands of pages to explain financing to our schools and I can sum it up in a paragraph or two in an easy to understand setting. Take two schools in Stillwater and Mahtomedi and look at their websites and see all the wonderful things these two top rated schools have to offer in Washington County. Then look at Ogilvie’s and Olivia’s (BOLD is the school). It takes just a minute and you could decide which school your child should go to. Look at the test scores and it becomes even clearer. It’s these test scores that determine accountability and the ever so popular “no child left behind,” when it comes to funding. With so many more programs offered at these larger well funded Twin Cities schools how can a small school compete when they have to cut the same programs just to survive on a minimal operating budget? We can now see why the test scores are skewed when the smaller schools don’t have the same ammunition to teach. This is strike one for the small rural schools. When driving through the respective towns and cities of any of the above mentioned school districts we see a much different tax base. We see large businesses and nice homes with higher property values occupying less space than these expansive farms in rural communities. A typical farm in Olivia might take up 300-500 acres and the value given to that farmhouse on one acre is your tax base. How many nice homes are on 300 acres in Stillwater? You get the picture and when the levy is brought up in these respective towns it will cost ten more dollars per month in Stillwater on a $200,000 home in property tax increases to fund their school. In Ogilvie or Olivia for that same priced home that takes up 300 acres instead of a half acre it costs that farmer a whopping $100 per month more on his taxes…strike two! The third part of this demise can be attributed to smaller enrollments. The state and federal governments give X amount of dollars per student. If a small school sees its enrollment decline over a few years it can’t recover and make budget, accountability, and everything else the state and federal levels want to see. It’s hard to make this budget when there is nothing left to strip from the school except the school itself…strike three, “and you’re outta here!”
As fundamental as education is to our nation’s success, it’s this success that bleeds into the prosperity of our economy. Maybe it’s another school that we just don’t care about. Then it becomes another or maybe its already happened to yours. When does it stop? When do we get to be heard? When do the memories of our childhood disappear forever? When does a town disappear with those faded memories?
President Elect Barack Obama asked in his acceptance speech what his daughter’s futures hold in the next century and what they will see. Countless times in stump speeches he reiterated hiring an army of new teachers. I asked my 12 year old daughter the same thing while explaining how this system works and she said, “Kids will have to go fifty miles just to get to school,” Pretty smart for a 12 year old to figure that one out. It doesn’t take a scholar to figure this one out, or a ten thousand page document from the government, but a map to look at the schools and how many have already closed their doors and combined with other schools. Driving in the business district and residential areas of Stillwater and my daughter’s eyes got bigger, and for the first time she saw the dollar signs that fuel the school district she once attended. The answers are all around us and talking with her Social Science teacher at parent teacher conferences we discussed this and she commented on the programs that will likely be cut next year at BOLD for these very same reasons we already mentioned. Will BOLD have to consolidate again in the future? Is it starting again or had it already begun when the schools combined so many years ago? Driving along Highway 212 you pass Glencoe to get to my daughters. With Macleod County West closing next year, the next school along 212 is BOLD almost 45 miles away…
Ogilvie’s evolution has a long history but the schools time stamp expired rather quickly. Friday nights not too long ago bustled under the lights of the football field where a succession of runs to an elusive state title always fell just short but brought this town alive for the faithful in Ogilvie. In the early 80’s the men’s basketball team filled the gymnasium as they entered the top ten in the state. It was during the 80’s that saw many grappler’s heading to state finals and the track teams were always one of the elite teams in the district. High school sports have always been able to bring a town together to relive the past or revive it once again in your sons and daughters. It was always the school that kept Ogilvie alive all these years.
In 1981 there was a fire that destroyed three businesses and the three stations at the time were there to cover what one had claimed, “burned half the town down.” Granted Ogilvie is a small town but it shows how Ogilvie was perceived… In early May of 1950, a tornado went through the area but Ogilvie still stood. If you went back just a mere 80 years Ogilvie was a bustling small town on the rise and a destination stop on the Great Northern Railroad between Duluth and the Twin Cities. You could book a night at the Grand Hotel for a dollar or two a night. A subscription to the Ogilvie Sentinel was only one dollar for a yearly subscription that came out every Friday. There was also a local milliner, hardware store, doctor’s office, lumber company, furniture store, grocery store, and others that lined main street Minnesota. The Theater and Opera house was a popular venture for those in the area that attracted people from all over the state. In 1929 there were even a couple weekends that featured the well renowned “it girl” Clara Bow. A traveling professional basketball team claimed Ogilvie as its home and traveled the Midwest for years. There was even the local car dealership that came into town after roads took over the railroad as the number one way to travel. Slowly the businesses disappeared with less rail traffic when the automobile offered different destinations with one of Minnesota’s favorite pastimes…road construction. Skimming through the Sentinel you find Tony Sandler of Sandler and Young buying a large ranch just south of Ogilvie. You will read about your neighbors, your dentists father, or doctors grandfather who had a hand in Ogilvie’s rich past. You pass through the years and find the high school baseball team beat Onamia with a starting pitcher on the mound that stood 6’6” and later in life was a very successful farmer that I worked for and had no idea he played baseball. I grew up in the shadows of the old met stadium and played baseball everyday for hours and had dreams of making the bigs someday…then we moved to Ogilvie where the baseball team no longer existed. Another year the local band makes a trip to Winnipeg and in another a local boy wins the national speech contest in Chicago. In 1970 the Sentinel published its last paper that started way back in December of 1904 with its inaugural issue and a motto of, “Truth, Justice, and Impartiality.” Ogilvie’s story is like so many in America of a towns rise and fall from circumstances beyond its control. This election Ogilvie finally had the chance to get that control back and not only rescue a school from certain peril but a town as well. The glory days of Clara Bow and the romantic past may have faded into memory but one thing has always stood throughout time to bring this community together…the high school. Without the high school as its pillar of strength that has withstood corporate farming, businesses leaving, and an ever changing landscape, where will Ogilvie be in 10 years? 20 years?
A levy is an object of strength to support a community in time of need. Maybe you have passed Ogilvie on your way up to Mille Lacs Lake on Highway 47. Maybe you were heading to the North Shore and went through on Highway 23. Maybe when you go through next time you will remember reading this and wonder what happened to Ogilvie. With this election this levy was to get a grade of pass or fail. In education this can mean you might have to take the class over again or worse…take that grade over again. A fail, which this election produced, caused an even greater failing mark…an incomplete. The town’s evolution will forever be stopped in its tracks, like the trains that grew this community and later dismantled it, as its inhabitants couldn’t afford to give this town and school a passing grade and allow it to continue on with its path on history. The levy broke and the flood has begun to breach its banks and with it take a town into obscurity. Ogilvie matters because it can be your town next. It can happen to your child, relative, or loved one. It can happen because the state allows it to happen. We have the power to make sure it stops here. Ogilvie matters because it can be the start of the end of watching this happen every year here in Minnesota and across the country. The only school closings you should ever hear about are the ones that come after another Minnesota Blizzard. Ogilvie matters because our children should never be an afterthought in budget cuts. Is the phrase, “Our children are our future,” just that? Is it an empty statement by politicians to get elected? I believe children; my daughter, your sons and daughters, every child across Minnesota and our great nation ARE our future. I don’t want to believe that this is an empty promise. I don’t want to believe this as a false hope. I won’t accept it! I am my father and mother’s future as they were to their parents and my daughter is to mine. It’s a legacy that we pass down with every generation that is offered something better than what we were offered with the changing environment. This legacy…This future…and these promises we make are why Ogilvie matters.
…published October 5, 2007 - Stillwater Gazette
According to a National Alliance Business report, “the second most often cited reason for a business selecting a particular location is the quality of schools.” A good school district has many benefits that affect the home owner in ways he or she can’t see. A good school district will produce a higher valued home, stronger demand, and appraisers when selling a home often figure a good school district into the value of the home you are selling. If you are not aware of these practices or want to see figures for yourself… Google! If this is the only thing that would sway you into voting for a levy increase of tax dollars to the equivalent of $1500.00 over ten years then it would be considered a wise investment. Remodeling your home will never bring the same dollar for dollar investment as continuing to live in a good school district. Living in a good school district also means less crime, a stronger community, and a more desirable place to live.
I recently went back to my hometown and visited my school for the first time in 23 years. Only three of my teachers were left and after speaking with all of them I was told of the many things that were offered when I was in school are no longer there because of budget constraints. Needless to say, my high school also now ranks near the bottom as far as test results are considered.
I moved here a little over a year ago because of the school district alone. I had never been to Stillwater, the beauty of the St. Croix, or any other great features that this area has to offer. When I moved here there were a plethora of homes for sale and now they are getting scarce. There are nine new students in my daughter’s grade alone. I read up on the Afton-Lakeland Elementary School and found they outperformed academic heavyweights in Woodbury and Mahtomedi. They were also in the top 1% in the country in academic development – WOW! I heard of the 73% of seniors going off to college upon graduation… one of the highest rates in the country! I envisioned my daughter in the performing arts building at the Stillwater High School where banners hang in great abundance of achievements past. I went to the high school website and saw all the wonderful things that they offered academically and through sports. When she is in 10th grade, if her grades allow, she will have the opportunity to take college courses and get credits toward her post secondary education. These are classes taught by college accredited professors… not on-line home study! That could be up to two years of college paid for and continued savings for the taxpayer based on a greater chance of not defaulting on a student loan. Not to mention the savings on mom and dad’s finances. When I heard that only a few schools in the state offered laptops to their students I thought, “This has to be an incredible advantage!” An analysis of more than 500 different studies found that students who use computers in school ranked an average of 14 points higher on achievement tests that those who did not. I can go on and on about the credentials of Stillwater the school and community but you know all that it offers right now.
There are two directions the school can go. Either falling out of the top 30 high schools in the state or passing up schools like Woodbury, Mahtomedi and Edina and cracking the top 5 or 10 in the state. Can you imagine what the value of your home will do if either of those scenario’s happen? Better yet – How about the value of the children’s education that the levy will benefit?
Money doesn’t produce those results alone… but it does help greatly. As parents we have to encourage and get involved in their schools. I for one will do everything in my power to help my daughter succeed. I will do my best to not only support and encourage her but her classmates and school as well. It’s a small investment of my time and tax dollars to see the rewards that it benefits my daughter and me in the road ahead. A sound public education system is the most important investment a community can make in its future.
Random thoughts pop into your head. Every five minutes a different memory or a variation on how you see yourself in the future. Daydreams you remember because they are plotted out. Dreams that change as you see fit when it’s not exactly how you wanted it. When I was a young child I had dreams of monsters dancing in my head. To eliminate the monsters I no longer wanted I would substitute Mickey Mouse’s head or Donald Duck’s head onto their bodies…sometimes it worked.
Today the monsters are much more scary and far too often – more real than fiction. Bill collectors, a call from your boss that you will be laid off, and the worst of all – when your child you love more than anything in the world stops calling. Your life begins to have less meaning and thoughts of peril enter your head at your own hand. What happened to get to this point?
Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse no longer work. You try to find that meaning that will keep you going another day. Your phone bill doubled this past month, checks bounced because you deposited money 15 minutes past 3pm, and driving home from work your car has encountered a new problem. Standing on the side of the road the monsters are entering your head at a numbing speed and you look to the heavens and wonder why you? You get the call moments later and your father has just passed after fighting cancer for years.
So here I stand on the side of the road crying. I didn’t even know my dad that well and maybe that scared me. I am not sure if I was crying for the loss of my father or for the man I never knew. Maybe it was putting my daughter in my shoes and placing me in the coffin. How would she feel if her dad had died? I have had thoughts of spending the rest of my time on earth rotting in a coffin… or more like a big black plastic bag thrown into a hole mixed with all the other days’ garbage. My mom’s husband was committed I find out on the road that day – which is good news. I feel if she can endure what she has had to survive through I can make it! The car has quit overheating and I wonder if the transmission fluid all over my back window is something short term or my blazer telling me she wants to find her own final resting place. I begin driving home again and my realtor calls and the house is finally going to sell through a short sale to avoid foreclosure. My credit was ruined because I got caught up in what a friend, who happened to be a mortgage broker, telling me it was my time to buy. Its rush hour traffic and I can’t see a car on the road. It’s like I am alone in my troubles as I cry out, “I wish no one my life!” The cars on the road appear and I feel trapped in my own vehicle. Water is rising from the floor boards and I can’t escape. The automatic windows won’t come down even though they are wide open to release the heat from the engine on this 90 degree day to keep the engine from overheating. The doors lock by themselves and the seat belt tightens around my body. I’m drowning by the monsters that won’t go away anytime soon.
“How to Save a Life,” comes on the radio and all I can think about is how I can help my daughter, a friend, and how I wish my life mattered. I have always been the friend to lean on or ask advice from. I realize I have become someone who so desperately wants to help everyone else that it puts me farther in the grave. My life needed saving and I ignored the words. The cemetery only has one tombstone…mine. At times there are hundreds of people there crying and telling stories of our past that we shared. I close my eyelids again to blink for a moment and I am now in that garbage heap rolling over last nights leftovers and the rest of the rubbish that was deemed…”not worthy to keep.” The garbage bag comes to its final resting place at the bottom of Mount Refuse. A front end loader is heard in the distance to soon play gravedigger. My eyes are wide open in the pitch black bag as I ponder death with a smile and yes dead men can smile and think when its plotted out. Dirt, garbage, and other undesirables are being nestled up next to me from the largest gravedigger to hold a shovel. Am I dead yet? My mind has become blank. No more monsters, no more phone calls, and only one thought enters my mind as I am ready to rest…”Is this a Hefty with drawstrings? Someone must care!”
Let’s start about six months ago. I was going through a divorce and starting a new job. My life was about to change in ways I couldn’t even imagine at the time. I never thought I would meet the love of my life online but it happened.
I was browsing the personals and saw this woman with her tongue hanging out and a goofy smirk on her face. It was hard to tell what she really looked like but the picture itself gave the image of a goofy, quirky, and unpredictable person with a great gift of spontaneity. Her name was Viktoria; and even the unusual spelling of her name made me want to meet her. The uniqueness of her name matched the picture that lied beneath. She had long brown hair with a dark complexion and her eyes were closed in a way that showed off her mischievous side. I read on in her description to find that she had brown eyes, which of course make me melt. A sucker for big browns is my downfall; like a kid loves chocolate she was my candy store. She was absolutely perfect in every way I imagined in my mind.
We started up a conversation through numerous e-mails and decided to meet. I was so scared. I hadn’t dated in over sixteen years and the thought of rejection after a beautiful e-mail relationship was frightening. Would she show up? If she did show up would she leave? I have gone out with some very attractive women in Minnesota but she was different. It was her personality through pen that I fell hard. First dates are always uncomfortable especially after writing to each other so often you think you will experience writers block in a dating sense and stare at the wall without anything to talk about. It seemed I knew her very well and she knew me equally as well. I was like a little schoolgirl trying on one outfit after another and looking at my daughter and asking for her approval. My daughter has great fashion sense and always lets me know what she thinks about what to wear and what not to wear. It was an exceptionally warm January day in Minnesota with the temps in the mid forty’s. I just didn’t know how to look the first day we met and it was getting closer and closer to the time I had to leave. I absolutely didn’t want to show up late on our first encounter and the butterflies were stirring like you wouldn’t believe. Finally, after two hours of preparation, which is an hour and a half longer than it would normally take me, I was ready. I wore shorts and a t-shirt with a casual semi pastel colored flannel shirt over the top. It was how I described myself and how I lived most of my days protesting the Minnesota winters. It was perfect! My daughter looked at me with a smile and smirk on her face while shaking her head in disapproval. “Good Luck,” she said, in a tone like I would really need it.
We were meeting at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis and then going out for a bite to eat after that. The falls was a place I spent a lot of time with my grandma growing up and again with my daughter as a dad. In the hundred or so times I had seen the falls I had never seen it in the winter so I was kind of excited to see its beauty in frozen form. We were bold in our e-mails in that we had decided a weekend get-away as our first date. To make matters worse, we had decided that after the falls and a bite we were going to take a four-hour car ride to the north shore in the middle of winter to camp and hike. This was not a typical winter though and the forecast was warm for our winter’s standards and the ground that is usually covered with snow was speckled at best with snow with more of the slumbering vegetation in brown as the landscape. The four-hour trip again scared me to death but excited me at the same time. I made it to the falls early about ten minutes before noon. I parked the blazer and proceeded to the falls with my digital camera to get some pictures before Viktoria arrived. I took a deep breath in and calmed myself to the fact that this was either the beginning or the end of what might be or could have been. I looked down over the falls to see a majestic sheet of ice with water cutting through the sculpture as if the artist wasn’t satisfied with the original production. I was in heaven! It was absolutely beautiful. I was taking one picture after another when I focused in on the bridge that went over the falls to see something that made my heart drop four feet it seemed. There she was. Viktoria. She was more beautiful than I imagined as I squeezed the button for the shot. She smiled as her shoulders dropped with her classic smirk that I imagined so many times in my mind. I took another picture as she came over to meet me. She had a confident stride with a hurried step and her hair was gently waving in the wind. Time seemed to stand still as my heart was pounding faster the closer she got. Without a word said she put her arms around my back and I instinctively wrapped mine around hers. She looked into my eyes and I got lost in hers. As her eyes closed, I pulled her closer to me and she reached in with a soft warm kiss. Her lips were slightly cold from the air but warmed quickly as each kiss became longer and more passionate. I couldn’t stop kissing her as her body entwined with mine as we became one. It was only a few minutes but felt like a lifetime for this moment to occur as we surveyed each others lips in the cool air that felt like a warm summer’s day as she warmed my heart with every kiss. We backed up from each other with a smile on our faces as she looked at me and said, “I knew you would were shorts.” She was wearing shorts as well, almost telling of a past experience we never shared.
The nervousness had left my body as we went to her car to load up her weekend supplies for our trip up north. We were like two kids who hadn’t seen each other since the first grade. It was non-stop talking through lunch and the trip up I-35 to Lake Superior. We had so much to talk about and only a weekend to say everything we wanted to say. What had happened in our lives, jobs, and the occasional stare that had me wondering how I was the lucky one to meet someone so incredible? I sometimes found myself not hearing a word she said. I was in a daze from her voice that exuded happiness of meeting someone that you thought you would never find… but somehow was always there.
When we reached our destination we set up camp. We weren’t exactly roughing it, as there was a heated camping cabin to sleep in later. Nightfall had set in and I started a fire. The temperature was cooler off the lake than it was in Minneapolis. It was still around thirty degrees and the forecast had it warming through the night. As we sat there next to each other in our camping chairs, with a blanket at times to keep us warmer when the fire died down, I thought to myself that I couldn’t be happier than I am right now. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and a million stars were shining brightly upon us as the sparks from the fire went into the sky to meet them. We hadn’t said a word for five minutes. I think it was the first time we stopped talking all day. It was a feeling of being complete. We had now been with each other for years in what had only been a day of catching up. It was like the two first graders were never apart as their lives were now filled with memories that they both seemed to share but never lived together. It was at that moment that two deer walked right next to the fire. They stopped to look at us in approval and calmly went on their way. It was approaching dawn as the sun was starting to fill the sky over the lake that we turned to each other as our jaws dropped in unison to what we had both just experienced. I didn’t want to sleep in fears that I would miss out on something or forget to say what I was feeling at that precise moment in time. Viki leaned over and kissed me again for the first time since we met earlier in the day. We both got up and headed into the cabin were it was warm and inviting. I was tired but didn’t want the day to end. We set up both beds earlier in the day with sleeping bags and pillows not to be presumptuous that we would sleep together the first night. I crawled into my sleeping bag and looked up as I laid my head down on the pillow to see Viki standing above me with a pouting look on her face. I couldn’t resist as she crawled in next to me. Her bare legs were up against mine and her foot was going up and down my leg to get warm. She came to bed wearing a large T-shirt that she borrowed from my bag that made me wonder what was underneath. I’m sure she felt something that I was trying to hide under the covers. She smiled and smirked, as she knew I was embarrassed from my newfound excitement in my shorts. She grabbed my hand and gently raised it from her thighs over her bare behind and rested it gently on her naked breast. Her nipple was extremely erect as was something poking her from behind under the sleeping bag. Box scores from baseball games and everything else popped into my head to get my erection down but to no avail. “Goodnight,” she said in a teasing manner as I replied, “That it was.” It was one of the best days I could remember in my entire life that ranked right beneath my daughter being born. I thought I was in love and wanted to say something so bad it hurt keeping it inside. I didn’t want to ruin the perfect day with an awkward moment that could make the rest of the weekend unpleasant for both of us. “I know it was just one day but I am so in love with you,” came the words I wanted to say. “I don’t want to ruin our perfect day, but I had to say something and hopefully you won’t be mad,” she said. I was stunned as I lied there hearing what I wanted to say. “I have been looking for you all my life and I can’t believe I found you. I’ve loved you since I laid my eyes on your picture in what seems so long ago but feels like yesterday.” I replied as I felt a second wind coming on as I pulled her as close to my body as I could. With that she smiled and fell asleep in my arms as she turned over and put her head on my chest. I must have stayed up another hour watching her sleep as the smile never left her side as we lie there as one.
I woke up to an empty bed just before noon with just a few hours of sleep and Viki looking over me again. This time she had a look of being irritated. She was showered already with her hair inside a baseball cap and pulled through the back in a ponytail. She was doing it to me again. I can’t resist a woman in a baseball cap with her hair the way she had it. “Get your lazy ass out of bed! We have a lot to do today and you are not going to sleep our weekend away,” she exclaimed. “Yes ma'am,” I replied as I quickly got out of bed, grabbed a towel and headed off to the shower. She slapped my ass as I was walking out the door. I smirked this time to match the smirk on her face as we both started laughing out loud. Off I went feeling like we were a couple that had been with each other for years just getting away from the real world for a weekend get-away with no cares in the world. A new bounce in my step was clearly visible as I had the look of, “yeah, she’s with me,” and feeling like everyone wanted to be in my shoes whenever they saw her. My gait suddenly slowed and my smile disappeared as I remembered that she was leaving for Australia in June. I had six months to decide and probably more like a long warm shower to see where I wanted this to go. I was so happy that I never wanted this time to end but at the same time I couldn’t be selfish and see her dreams fade to suit my happiness.
The next six months were going to be incredible. If that meant that the person I was destined to meet and change my life forever was only to be someone I loved for a short time and in my heart forever. She was my new best friend and I was going to treat every day with her as the last day of my life.
Charlie reluctantly cracked open the door; after 20 years, the shroud that veiled the family secret was finally starting to unravel.... “How did I get here?” she uttered softly with despair as she fell helplessly to the floor.
Charlotte was the name on the mail she received but she preferred Charlie as it more aptly described her tomboy personality. There was a mirror embedded on the east wall directly below the window where the sun would soothe the aching in her body every morning. It was her only friend at times. She spent many days sitting in front of the mirror looking at her face age over the years like a Dorian Gray novel. She can’t remember the last time she wore make up which has kept her face almost unchanged through time. At 44 years of age she could still be mistaken for someone in her mid twenties. Her big brown eyes would often show remorse, sometimes mystery, and always seem to be searching for something.
Charlie was never married and had no children so visitors to her home were less frequent as the years had passed. Her fear of the world outside had consumed her every thought, her every dream, her entire existence. She relied on her maid of the last twenty years, Doreen, as her only source of news and contact with the world outside. She kept her life simple. She wore the same clothes every day…basic white to encompass her purity and innocence. Doreen did her shopping, cooking, and any errands that needed to be done. Nothing changed - Day in…Day out.
There wasn’t much that Charlie remembered of her life before she became such a recluse. Was she a wealthy heiress? Did she come from nobility? What were her parents like?
Doreen left around 10 pm that evening and had accidentally left the door slightly ajar. It was early morning and the screams from one of the neighbors had awoken Charlie from an already restless sleep. This person seemed to be fighting relentlessly…but with whom? The screams wouldn’t stop. This went on for nearly a half an hour. Why hadn’t the police come yet? Was this person being raped or murdered? Was she next? Shadows had entered through her door and disappeared randomly as they passed the lights outside. It was an eerie darkness on the other side of the door and through the screams in the distance she could hear voices mumbling. She wanted to scream for help but wasn’t sure if the voices were good voices or someone that could harm her. She made her way under her bed to hide but was frightened by the thought of being trapped with no way out. The one place in her home she felt safe was under the mirror where she spent so much time during her days searching for comfort. Quietly she made her way as she soon found herself trembling uncontrollably in her blanket. Her clothes had become soaked in fear. The door to the outside world seemed miles away. If she was to scream would anyone hear? She couldn’t remember why she had her home sound proofed but with the screaming from outside she soon rationalized why. To keep the outside from getting in!
Fifteen feet was all that separated her from her fears, her hopes and dreams of an existence, and of a past she would like to remember. Her eyes moved from the light switch that could comfort her in the darkness to the hands of the clock moving in reverse. Time had stood still and she felt paralyzed. Tick…tick…tick…
“Make it stop!” She screamed, covering her mouth and slumping closer to the floor. Did anyone hear? The sound of her heart beating was now moving in unison with the sounds of the clock. Tick…thump - thump, tick…thump – thump.
An hour had passed. There was no traffic sounds or pedestrians walking by. Twenty years had gone by since she had been on the other side of the door. Twenty years and the door was never left open…not even a crack. With her legs limp in fear she crawled across the tiled floor wrapped in her blanket as her only security. Her wet clothes against the chilled tile floor were adding to her already shaking body. She was within reach of the door as her fears started to subside as a new adrenaline had entered her body. Her favorite time of the day was approaching with the sun slowly rising behind her peeking in through the window. A new dawn of possibilities and a past soon to be awakened. Excitement of the unknown made her heart skip a little faster than the clock on the wall. Visions of a life started to emerge within the deepest parts of her mind. A child swinging in the backyard with her father smiling as he pushed her. Was this her father? Was it in this home?
“Time for breakfast,” came a voice from the home as the father and child stared in the direction of the voice.
Smiling, Charlie reluctantly cracked open the door; after 20 years, the shroud that veiled the family secret was finally starting to unravel.... “Mom” she cried out as she pushed the door open from her knees. “What are you doing out here,” Doreen said hurriedly setting a tray of eggs and bacon next to Charlie as she lay motionless on the floor. No more tears. No more dreams and no more fears. In one night she aged. Her mirror was now broken and her portrait was complete as the halls of the insane lit with the morning rays.
I really didn’t want to fall in love with the first person I met after being married for so long. One thing I didn’t realize is that sometimes it just smacks you over the head and there is nothing you can do about it. I was at Borders one night on a semi blind date with someone I had chatted with online. I didn’t dress nice; had a bandana over my head, with jeans and a t-shirt with a sweatshirt over that. Not your typical first date attire but we decided we would dress casual. I set myself up to be let down before she arrived. I didn’t want to get too excited and least of all have a good time. I was separated and didn’t think I deserved to be happy and not after only three months. It had been years since I have been in love but still only three months removed from my former life.
I was running late and when I arrived I did not see her immediately so I ordered a coke and started to do a little browsing when she brushed up behind me. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t play fair and I had no chance of survival. Have you ever met anyone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with in just the first few seconds of meeting? She lit up the room with her smile and her gorgeous big blue eyes that had me mesmerized made me weak. When we chatted she told what her best physical feature was but for the life of me I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t think of what wasn’t perfect. She said she was outgoing but that may have been an understatement. I felt so comfortable and at the same time was wondering what her husband was thinking? He must be clinically insane after talking with her for the first hour as she made me uncomfortable with how she was exactly what I had been looking for my entire life it seemed. She was separated as well and for about the same time frame as I. Kathy was her name and her voice with a smile at the end of every sentence drew me closer to her by every breath. Was this fate? Was it too good to be true? What have I done to deserve someone like this?
As we sat and talked for hours I felt my eyes drift away from hers, as I didn’t want to see myself in a relationship so early. As my eyes drifted away though they always came back and focused on hers. At times I didn’t even hear a word she was saying as I went into daydreams it seemed of what our lives would be like in the future. Was I nuts? Thinking that far ahead in just the first hour of meeting? It was at this point that I started looking for flaws… anything that could put me back in control. She stood up and we started to walk around the store. I reached for her hand and our pinkies grabbed each other as we had chatted about online before. I smiled and looked at her with pure amazement. We were like two little kids away from our parents sneaking to get away so we could be with each other. What was wrong with me? She mentioned she was slender and I thought I would get a quick peek at her butt when she moved in front of me to find something wrong and it was this perfectly formed, slightly hidden by her leather jacket, thing of beauty that I was hoping wasn’t there. She turned around and I focused back to her eyes so she wouldn’t catch me in full stare. My arm brushed up against one of her small but firm breasts. I could have died at that moment as something began to arise in my pants. I told her of my condition before we met that it really didn’t take much to get a rise out of me and in public I tend to wear shirts that are a little longer to hide this apparent problem of mine. I moved in close for a kiss and her soft lips were something I longed for in what seemed like an eternity already. Wow! There was no looking back now. Cool had left me and I was utterly alone. There were no faults to be had and she even had a great personality. Damn it, I thought! This wasn’t supposed to happen. I don’t know how long we were in the bookstore and at this point didn’t want the night to end anytime soon. I was hooked.
The rest of the night was a blur, as seven hours seemed to escape us in a blink of an eye. Odd that we set our date for valentine’s eve and even more odd was the fact that over two inches of rain had fallen in an unpredictable Minnesota winter. As we left to go to our vehicles the rain had turned to snow with over two inches now on the ground. I went to warm my vehicle up as she invited me for a nightcap into her blazer. Not your typical nightcap, and as two law abiding adults, no drinking was involved. I stepped into her domain and wanted nothing more than to get as close to her as possible. I went for the juggler right away as I gently kissed her lips. The next few minutes turned into almost a half an hour as I lost all concept of time, as I wanted to feel the warmth of her body next to mine. I don’t remember much over that time except that her breath on my neck and ears almost made me faint. It was at this point in the night that I realized if I didn’t get out of her grip my blazer would soon run out of gas. The low fuel light was on for the last five miles before I got there and soon I would be running on fumes. Her visor came down with her reaching for a cd and her only flaw I could find soon surfaced. This really wasn’t a flaw but I was nowhere even close to country as some country artist was soon blaring from the speakers. Somehow though I believed she could turn me country with her smile. I would never admit it as a life long subscriber to rock and roll. Her only flaw was now endearing and I couldn’t take anymore of perfection unless it required removing clothes. We kissed one last time and I left with a rise in my pants that was a reminder of how long it had been since I was with a woman in an intimate situation.
I looked at my blazer and wondered if I would make it to gas station before I would have to walk to get gas. I headed for the nearest gas station with the needle now buried on E. It was an absolutely perfect evening with a nightmarish ending in sight that really wouldn’t be as bad had the previous hours not been so heavenly. My luck had changed soon as the one gas station that I knew of near was closed. It was about seven miles to the next gas station and I started my trek through the slush, which coupled with being in four-wheel drive, was reducing my gas mileage. The smile on my face could not be erased as the needle was no longer moving toward fumes but stopped all together letting me know that the light was going to change from “low fuel” to “prepare to walk.” I couldn’t get Kathy out of my head and soon I missed the exit for the twenty-four hour station. It was another four miles home now and my feet were already feeling wet from the impending walk in the slush. Within minutes I was raising the garage door to my town home and the perfect evening turned into something graced by a higher being. The biggest chance I took on the evening was running on empty. Something I didn’t want to happen did and for once in my life I was hoping the biggest chance someone else would take would be on me.
The decision to end one’s life has to be the ultimate sacrifice one takes to eliminate themselves from the rest of the world. From the rest of their loved ones, whom they feel they can’t turn to in their time of need for one reason or another. A life unfulfilled or one not fully realized. A life cut short from something extraordinary…or something just ordinary. These are the hours and minutes leading up to the end of my life and ultimately the life I lived.
Have you met that person you thought was so honest, genuine and kind, that to yourself, you thought that either this person was really good at fabricating stories or is this person the real deal? I met Shad Drake around a bonfire one night at a friend’s house. He had recently purchased a home in the neighborhood and where there is smoke there is fire and he introduced himself to us that evening. He had such a presence around him as he went from one couple to a small group to an individual. I watched him move with grace as every word coming from his mouth was filled with hope and awe. His stories of his past and his future were intoxicating like the alcohol we were consuming. People would become drunk in his words and sober in his vision. The evening was moving as if in slow motion as we were all witness to the next great thing. It was at this point he was making his way over to introduce himself to me that my stomach started twisting in knots. It was as if I was about to meet someone famous yet his name wasn’t household banter quite yet. I noticed that everyone he had talked to was chatting with someone else about what he had spoken about. It was like a prophet had entered our little circle and I was soon to be converted over to Drakism. I wasn’t going to be able to stop this conversion either I was guessing.
Drake was a tall man at 6’ 5” with a solid build, yet a lanky type frame to him. He had piercing blue eyes and high cheek bones that seemed to swallow his eyes and draw you in to his every thought. His voice was deep and his words were crisp. His every breath seemed to echo through the night and devour our attention. His gestures were that of a carefully thought out politician playing for an audience. I am a little more solid than Drake but much shorter at 5’ 8” tall. I am a good-looking man I guess with huge brown eyes and long eyelashes that most women would kill for. I rarely smiled and was often seen covering my mouth when I was in tears laughing. My cheeks would draw up around my eyes and remind me of my youth of women pinching my cheeks exclaiming how cute I was. I hated that when I was young and was always conscience of how puffy my face would turn when I laughed. Our voices were almost identical yet his seemed to command more attention than mine which made me more curious to meet him. I was always the center of the party and this man had entered my domain and was taking my audience from me and for no other reason than that, I wanted to meet him and to know why?
“Joe Ryan,” I said with confidence as I reached out to shake his hand with a firm grip. Even at a young age my grandfather told me a man’s handshake should be firm but not intimidating.
“Shad Drake,” he said as everyone had become a little quieter as to eavesdrop on our conversation to see if we were going to spar over attention.
“Are you a politician or someone famous that I haven’t heard of yet?” I asked in what I thought was a genuine question to his sudden nobility.
“I have been around the fire meeting everyone and for some reason I wanted to talk to you last as I was a little apprehensive in meeting you at first. To your question though…no and no. I am a messenger of sorts much like you. I have dreams and aspirations that have or will become reality. I have listened to your ideas, hopes and visions for years now and have acted on every thought you have had.”
It was at this point that I looked around and we were all alone in front of a raging fire even though the logs had burned almost to the ground. The night became crystal clear and I have never seen the moon so bright. The night was no longer moving in slow motion but at a complete standstill and we were all alone. I looked around and could see shadows of where people were sitting and standing but no one was there to cast these images from the light of the moon.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am you. I am what you could have become or still can if you so chose. My message to you is clear. The world is a much brighter place with you in it. I am here to help you decide if you want to keep the fire bright or become its ashes.”
In an instant the fire turned to ash, the light from the moon had vanished and a sudden chill came upon me. In the darkness I could still see clearly. Beyond the outlines of Drakes chiseled face I could see every branch, leaf, and even the smallest of creatures flying and stirring about in the darkness.
“I don’t plan on leaving for awhile…and where is everyone?” I said with a brow raised as I wondered who this man was.
“They are all still here. You can’t see them because your vision has been clouded as of late as I am dying from the emptiness in your heart. It is what is in your heart that has made me strong over the years and your feeling of helplessness lately has weakened me.”
“I guess I don’t get it. I don’t understand. Is this like a taping of a new twilight zone or what? Am I dreaming? Is this real? What the hell is going on here and can we put some flame back onto the fire?”
“Everyone has choices that they make in their lives that ultimately decide the fate of others and the fate of their own existence. They have the ability to either favorably change their surroundings or alter them in a way that they can never truly see the magnitude of their choice. This can be in a positive, neutral, or negative way. No one can know what that choice has done for themselves or others, but I am here to show you the life you could have had or still can. You are the most remarkable man I have known and I should know because I am you. You marveled at the way people listen to me like they listen to you except different. They listen to me and look at you and I’m sure you’ve noticed and wondered why? Were we talking about you? You could hear their conversations but you weren’t really listening. They all mentioned one thing in common and that was that you had thought of something similar. I cannot tell you what impact you have had on the world but I will tell you this. It’s your choice. It’s your choice to take the life you have or the life you have wanted. Much like the ashes you contemplate or a blazing fire that draws people to you.”
The fire reappeared and sudden warmth came back over me as I tried to digest his meaning.
“The life I wanted?” I interrupted with a little anxiety in my voice, “and thank you,” I half winked in approval as I rubbed my hands near the fire to capture its heat.
“How do you know that the life I have right now is not the life I want? Are you God?” I said in a mocking way that I think had angered Shad or myself, and at this point I was more confused than enlightened like I thought I would be by meeting myself I guess as it were.
“I am not god; I am not an angel or have anything to do with god. I am you. I didn’t ask you if the life you are living is the right one, I asked you if you wanted to take the life you have or the life you wanted. They could be one in the same and that is your choice.”
“You are confusing the hell out of me. What do you want? What happens if I decide to take the life you have created for me? What happens to the life I have created for my daughter, my friends, and myself? Would I still have my daughter? What would I lose if I make this choice?”
“I can’t answer those questions for you. I can tell you this, I have never been happier in my life until now. You talk of hope in the world and a tear is shed from your eye as someone dies that you cannot help. For every tear you shed a part of me disappears because your dreams are now dissipating without cause and only thoughts of despair are in your mind and heart. Your transportation of thought has always been around the fire with friends that you can deliver your message to upon deaf ears. You joke about getting together and talking smart and solving world problems around the fire but you have yet to do so lately. You have given up on the passion that has created me and now you are killing me with your despair. It is your choice to make, if I am to live or die.”
“Do I have to make this decision now or can I take a few days? Wait! Before you answer that question let me take a piss…I’ll be right back.”
Shaking my head and trying to clear my mind I headed for the edge of the woods to relieve myself of what seemed to be about a 12 pack in my body. It was like the never-ending stream as I looked at my surroundings and noticed that the clouds had now covered the moon and the night was no longer as clear as it was. “No shit,” I thought to myself. I was never so confused. As I finished and zipped up I turned around to find everyone around the fire again. Shaking my head again I couldn’t help but think I must have had more to drink than I thought and the amount of liquid that came out of me asserted that assumption.
I sat back down next to the fire and checked my cell phone to see if I missed any calls and noticed that the time was 11:00 pm. Mind you I got there at 7:00 and the last thing I remember was talking with Drake and seeing that the time on my watch was past midnight. I looked at my watch again and it was 11:01 pm. I remember drinking three beers while talking with him and the empty cans were next to my chair. I always turn my tabs so I definitely drank them. I was also getting very drunk as my head was almost to that point of spinning. I must have passed out for a while staring into the mesmerizing flame. Now Jay Robbie, or Birdman as we all called him in reference to his first name, was my best friend. Bird was the same height as me, a huge sport nut, with a smart-ass sense of humor that made you watch what you said or you were to get grilled by his wit. Bird was rekindling the fire when I went up to him to explain the freakish thing that just occurred to me.
“Bird…I know you will think I’m nuts, but I met this guy around the fire tonight that doesn’t exist.” I said waiting for his slapstick.
“…And who was this man?” He said in a superman voice.
“A guy named Shad Drake.”
“Yeah, I met him. He just moved in down the street. He exists,” shaking his head thinking I was nuts now.
“Ummmmm, He said he was me? Was I passed out or something? You slip something into my drink? If you did the answer is no Jay – You’re not my type.”
“You know I like it when you talk dirty to me,” he said laughing.
“No you weren’t passed out, I didn’t slip something into your drink, but I do think you might need a little help from the good doctor…Dr. Budweiser that is.” He said opening another beer for me and twisting the tab.
“It seemed so real, I must have had a little lapse or something. Maybe I had too much to drink, I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore.”
“Shut up and drink, and remember, no politics tonight. No talk about world problems - nothing. Lets just have a good time and tomorrow we get up and golf at 10:00.”
“One question for you though and I promise not to talk smart and solve world problems as you say tonight. If you had another life that was given to you and you had to chose which path you would take, either the one your on or the one that could have been, which would you chose?”
“That’s a loaded question for one. How do I know what the other life is like and no, I couldn’t just give up on my current life. If I didn’t know if my kids would be around, I couldn’t live with that decision. Drink your beer and shut up!” He said looking perplexed, as was I with his answer.
The rest of the night was just plain eerie as Shad was a real person but for some reason he appeared to me in another light than the rest of our group. I didn’t talk about him or anything else for that matter the rest of the night. It was small talk and nothing more.
The next morning I woke up in my bed with a faint smell of smoke in my clothes and my mouth tasting completely awful from the amount of beer consumed and cigarettes smoked. I called Jay to see what time to meet him at the course and he was at work. Did I sleep an entire day and miss golf I pondered to myself as I hung up the phone. I never miss a chance to golf and if it was Monday and not Sunday like I thought, I had thirty minutes to get ready for work. I work managing apartments so the commute was only across the parking lot thank god! I showered and got ready in ten minutes. I had a quick bite to eat, grabbed a Pepsi and off to work I went. On my way across the parking lot I called Jay at work again to find out what happened Sunday.
“Bird…How the hell did you let me sleep an entire day away and miss golf?” I said in an annoyed voice.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“After the bonfire Saturday, which by the way you shouldn’t have let me drive home, you said we were golfing at ten. I didn’t wake up till this morning. What happened?”
“What happened? I have no idea what you’re talking about. The kids and I went to a movie Saturday night and I went to bed early. Sunday I was at the in-laws all day. What bonfire were you at?”
“Never mind, I must have had some goofy dreams last night. I really don’t remember what I did this weekend I guess. I must have slept all weekend.”
“Are you on drugs? Let me call you later bud, I have a meeting I have to get to in five minutes.”
“All right, talk to you later.”
What is going on? I can’t remember an entire weekend? I just put it out of my mind. The last thing I needed was for the ex to hear that I am delusional and not be able to see my daughter. My day at work dragged and I was extremely tired for someone who apparently slept for over fifty hours. I had one appointment left at 4:30 and after that I was going to go home and sleep. I apparently need more sleep these days than the usual five hours a night. I went outside for a smoke and realized I hadn’t had a smoke all day. I was wearing the patch on my left bicep and remembered reading the warning label that strong dreams can occur if you wear the patch overnight. It was starting to make sense to me and if nothing else was learned, I will forgo wearing the patch at night from now on. It didn’t explain the bonfire smell, the alcohol I guess I didn’t consume that was on my breath in the morning, or the feeling in my lungs as if I smoked three packs of cigs the night before. I had nothing else to go on so I’m sticking with the patch theory and maybe did a little walking in my sleep.
I didn’t take the original call that generated the appointment at 4:30 and when I glanced at the name in the appointment book I took a double take to see the name Chad Blake. I was thinking to myself that this is one wacky coincidence or I am truly going nuts. When Chad showed up I was expecting this guy I had envisioned in my dreams. He was completely the opposite though. He was a couple inches shorter than me and weighed probably fifty pounds more. His eyes weren’t piercing at all but squinty. He was like the anti-drake, which made me chuckle a little. I showed him the open apartment we had and all the amenities we had to offer and brought him back to the office in hopes that he would put money down to hold the apartment.
“I have some choices I have to make before I commit to putting money down on this apartment,” he said.
“Choices…like what kind of choices?” I asked starting to get a little excitement in my voice.
“I have two apartments to choose from. Yours has a lot of what I’m looking for but the other apartment I looked at earlier might be better suited for the direction I want my life to go.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” I asked. “Are your apartment choices like the choices I have to make in which direction I want my life to lead or which life I want to chose?” I said angrily.
“No…it’s just that the other apartment is a little more expensive and I think it may project a more positive energy for me at work. I do think you have helped me with my decision though.” He said, as he looked at me in bewilderment.
“I’m sorry; I just had a long weekend followed by a long day at work. I think you would be more comfortable here in a quality apartment where you could save some money. You could use the savings for other things that could help you reach that confidence level you are seeking at work. What do you do for a living?” I asked with a little more relaxed demeanor.
“I’m a messenger.”
“Like parcel?” I asked with a raised brow.
“Whatever they want me to deliver.”
“In the next twelve hours my choice will have been made. I know it is not an easy decision for me but one that has to be made soon. Your life depends on it.”
“Depends on it like? Your apartment choice has a bearing on my life?”
“I’m just a messenger that is for you to figure out.”
I walked him to the door with a blank look to my face and instead of reaching for the door I pinched his arm.
“Ouch” he said turning around to look at me with a hint in his eyes that I was some kind of crazed lunatic.
I took my pointer finger and gently pushed into his chest.
“Yep, you’re real all right.” I said as I almost slammed the door in his face as my gentle shove nudged him out the door.
I shook my head as I started to close up the office for the night thinking this wasn’t the twilight zone I was experiencing. I looked in the mirror to see if there was a resemblance to Ebenezer Scrooge, because it was starting to feel a lot like a Christmas Carol. I shook my head again to clear my jumbled brain and chuckled to myself, “He’s not renting here.”
I did find myself looking for the third ghost to appear much of the rest of the evening and at the same time I was noticing an abundance of time keeping devices wherever I went. I looked at my watch, which is funny because I have never owned one before, had stopped. I don’t remember having a watch on my wrist all day and there it was.
“Weird,” I thought as the time on the watch which read 5:17 coincided with the disappearance of the anti-drake.
“5:17,” I said to myself. Why would this number be significant?
I noticed that I had now been walking for more than an hour with no destination planned or any idea of where I was headed. Suddenly my cell phone rang inside my pocket as I almost tripped over something on the sidewalk. I looked back to see what I stumbled on as a hand grabbed my pants leg.
“Help out a vet in need,” uttered a voice that was attached to the hand that stopped me.
I reached into my pocket and quickly answered my phone before it went to voice mail, “One sec bird,” as I handed the man a twenty.
“Ahhhhhhh,” I shrieked as the man looked like a weathered, half alive Shad Drake. As the money went from my hand to his he disappeared.
“What are you doing?” an annoyed Jay replied.
“I really have no idea…at all,” I replied with an emphasis on the at all.
“It’s Friday night, Jen is not on call, and it’s your birthday.”
“I’m Forty tomorrow, not tonight. Don’t age me quicker than needs be.”
“We’re going out tonight and I have a fire ready for after the bar.”
“Give me thirty and I can be down there,” I said as I hung up the phone.
I took a quick look around for the homeless man but he was nowhere to be found. I looked into my pocket and the twenty that was there before was nowhere to be found as well.
“God I am going nuts.” I said out loud.
I thought to myself that if I was going to be drinking tonight that I would treat myself to smoking for one more night. I reached over to grab the patch off my arm and it wasn’t there.
“I am so fucked up,” I uttered to myself finally getting home and into my blazer for the trek down to Jay’s for what could be one last night of fun I thought before they commit me. I looked at my watch that I must have stole in my dazed state to notice that it was still at 5:17. I shook it as if that would magically make it start telling time to no avail. I shook it again hoping for a magic 8 ball outcome… NOTHING! I put it to my ear thinking that I could somehow hear it ticking and to my amazement it worked.
“It ticks!” I said as a smile came across my face.
I looked at it again but it wasn’t working. The arms still remained at 5:17. Again I put it to my ear and the ticking sound grew louder. I took off the watch as if it was ready to detonate and take my hand off at the wrist. I looked at the back for a battery and noticed something etched on the back. I pulled over and turned on the dome light to see a faint Shad Drake scribed on the back. I looked again and it faded away before my eyes.
“Did I see what I thought I saw,” I said to myself looking around at traffic to see if anyone else saw the same lunatic that I was looking at in the rear view mirror.
I rolled down the passenger window and tossed the watch out the window and proceeded to head to Jay’s.
“O.K. something is going on here… and why am I talking out loud to myself?”
“5:17, 5:17, 5:17, 5:17, 5:17…What does it mean?”
I decided to quit talking to myself out loud as I was starting to think seriously about committing myself. 5:17 I now thought in my head had to mean something but what. What will happen at 5:17? Will I disappear? Will my life change to something else? With an approving nod I thought maybe I would turn into a 6’ 5” Shad Drake and an NBA superstar past his prime.
“5:17 is the time I was born,” I suddenly realized.
I pulled into Jay’s driveway at that moment and just sat with the engine running for what seemed like an eternity as a million things entered and exited out of my mind. It was now just past 10:00 which gave me approximately seven hours to decide something I really gave no thought to but tried to understand. Seven hours to decide what life I wanted? The life I had, or the one that is filled with so much hope and promise that Shad had assured he was living. I shut the car off and Jay came around from the back of the house.
“Well bud, Jen was called in tonight on an emergency call so we are either stuck here with beers around the fire or you can go out by yourself. She’s mid-wifering it tonight (a non existent word for a mid wife in the verb form). Sorry man,” Jay said with actual empathy instead of his usual sarcastic tongue.
“To tell you the truth Jay, I really don’t feel like going to the bar. I think I need a good night by the fire to clear my head. I promise no politics but I can’t promise you that you will understand anything I say tonight because I really don’t know what’s going on in my life right now.”
“Well I got the fire started like a boy scout and the beer is already chillin’ in the cooler. I have the baby monitor out by the fire and I’m not sure how late I will be able to stay up or for that matter drink since I can’t get too drunk in case one of the kids needs dad, but it’s the best I can offer you. Not quite the fortieth birthday celebration you were looking for I bet but I promise I will take you out tomorrow night and do it up right.”
“I think I am going to drink to my hearts content and not worry about tomorrow for I just don’t know where I will be."
“Whatever…there is a fire that needs us and a beer with your name on it out back.”
The fire was blazing and there was a chill in the air which was expected for what was soon to be November, 11th, the day I was born. There was no snow on the ground as this was an already warm start to a Minnesota winter that hadn’t seen a night into the thirties yet. Tonight it was supposed to change as they predicted a low into the upper twenties with a chance of snow. I decided not to talk about anything that was happening to me but just enjoy the evening for what it was. We sat around the fire reminiscing about the great times we had spent together and the families we brought into this world. Usually around the fire I would bring up ideas I had to cure the U.S. of homelessness, racism, my thoughts on gun control, or whatever else ailed the world at the time. Tonight was different though. As the night progressed it was becoming apparent what I needed to do. We talked about everything and nothing. Arguments of the ten funniest movies ever to our own Ross Gellar laminated five list of who we could sleep with if given the chance. I couldn’t remember a better birthday and I wasn’t surrounded by all my friends for once but just my best friend. It was around 2:00 a.m. when Jay went to bed and I stayed up to tend the fire. I angered my ex-wife that night when I called my daughter around 2:30 to tell her in length of how much I already missed her and how very much dad loves her. I didn’t want to fall asleep fearing what might or might not happen in just a few hours. I put a couple more logs on the fire and opened another beer that I really didn’t need and set it next to me as I leaned back in my chair. I was going to close my eyes for just a few minutes.
The phone rang. Jay woke up to answer while looking down at the smoldering fire from his window noticing that it was now snowing for the first time this year.
“Hey Jen how was your delivery?”
“Anyone show up tonight?” she said excitedly before answering Jay’s question.
“No one showed up tonight so it was just the neighbor Stu and me hanging by the fire”
“Well my night was kind of exciting, can I tell you about it real quick?”
“Can it wait till you get home?”
“No it can’t,” she said in what he thought would be an annoyed manner but was still very upbeat.
“At 5:17, the most beautiful eight pound six ounce, blue eyed baby boy you have ever laid your eyes upon was born. She named him Shad Drake. It was a miracle Jay, this homeless man with twenty dollars to his name hailed a cab and dropped her off at the hospital I guess. He came upon her passed out from what she told me was exhaustion from trying to walk to the hospital. Isn’t that amazing?” she said all in one breathe.
Before he could answer Jen asked, “Did you watch any T.V. tonight?”
“I didn’t why?”
“Ironically at 5:17 when this miracle baby was born our president, Joe Ryan, was out running without his secret service with him when witnesses say they saw him trying to give this homeless man money. The homeless man I guess then pulled out a gun and shot and killed him at exactly 5:17.
“How weird is that?”
Passion can be hateful, blind, and oppressive.
It can hurt - lasting forever…etched in one’s memory.
Is it black or white, Jewish or catholic?
Maybe it’s too tall, too fat…or poor.
I am different…
…Just like you.
Passion can be filled with love and understanding.
It can cure – last forever…erase the hurting.
Passion can be learned…or unlearned.
Today I think I will learn to be more passionate!
…Toward people like you.
Should be with joy
Of the times we spent
Since I was a boy
Memories falling from your eyes
Of times that will never be
A part of you has died
I’m sorry - to you from me
Embrace your pain
And your sorrow
As a reminder of me
With each tomorrow
The times we shared
I think we agree
It was never you and I
But always love as we
An inseparable bond
Only a mother and son can share
I will miss you mom
And watch over you with care
Our memories I have taken with
Where there is never any pain
For the joy and love we have shared
My tears from heaven fall as rain
I love you mom
You’re my best friend
From heaven above
Let me help you mend
I will never die or fade away
Living always in your heart
And never apart